Note: This post may only be of interest to those who are curious about my anticipated work assignment here.
In cross-cultural studies, different cultures can be distinguished based on whether they are “low context” or “high context”. The distinction is used to describe cultures based on how explicit the messages exchanged are and the role that context plays in the successful communication of information. High context cultures are collectivist, value interpersonal relationships, and have members that form stable, close relationships. Japan is often cited as an example of a high context culture. In a high context culture, the way words are said can be more important than the words themselves, so many things are left unsaid, relying upon the context of the moment and the culture as a whole to impart meaning.
The United States is a low context culture. Compared to a culture like Japan, most of the information in a communication is conveyed by the words themselves, meaning is made explicit, and less is left to the imagination than in high context cultures. So in the U.S., we have written policies and agreements for everything, nothing is left to chance, and the way in which words are used forms the basis for our very extensive system of litigation. This is not to say that nothing is left to inference, most misunderstandings between people arise because of a misinterpretation of what a speaker presumed to be an unambiguous explicit message. But on a continuum of “contextualization”, America definitely shows up on the low end: we like the words themselves to tell us what we need to know. More clarity means better efficiency, we can get where we want to go more quickly and with less confusion when we are all looking at the same policy statement.
I can always tell when I have entered a culture which is higher context than my own. I feel as though I am swimming through molasses, not sure of where I am, what I am expected to do, or even what to say. I am uncertain of what might present itself in the next moment, what might be expected of me that I did not anticipate. What I have learned is simply to remain open and wait and see what happens. Today was my first official day of work and the molasses was as thick as ever, a signal to watch and wait. I arrived without a clue as to what to do with myself, apart from going to sit in the very nice office that they are providing for me.
With Peace Corps, each volunteer works with a “counterpart” (CP) and a “supervisor” at their site, the latter of whom also supervises the counterpart. In addition, we have a Program Manager based at the Peace Corps office in the capital city which, in my case, is about 2 hours away in Kigali. My counterpart is responsible for giving me a work assignment, providing me with support; my supervisor oversees what we do. The lines of responsibility between the two is not clear to me yet (molasses), but I do know that respecting the lines of authority is important, and that I should never never go to my supervisor about anything without first going to my CP.
Here’s how I experience the molasses effect. Please remember that it is only “molasses” to me because of my own cultural limitations/expectations. High context cultures are, I believe, more numerous on this planet than low context ones. Neither is any better than the other, but going from one to the other can feel disorienting to the traveler.
I was presented today with a list of all the courses offered at Indangaburezei College of Education where I teach and asked to select ones that I would like to teach. There were a couple of problems with this request right off the bat. First of all, you can’t tell what a course is about from its title, and, secondly, I’m not here to replace existing faculty. I am here to provide technical skill in an underequipped area, in this case, according to my Peace Corps job description, the teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL), especially speaking and listening in functional and situational settings, for example, how to invite someone out to dinner, how to buy a plane ticket, etc.
Already I am stuck in the middle of a sea of molasses. Assumptions have been made about how I am to participate that are not consistent with the ones made by the people who sent me here. Believe it or not, this is progress. Now, at least I now I can see at least on set of contextual assumptions of which I was not previously privy to.
With regards to the misapprehension on the part of my hosts concerning the work Peace Corps expects me to do, I am not surprised. This misunderstanding is, itself, in part a function of the low-high context differences: Peace Corps, as a low context culture, develops job descriptions in collaboration with host nationals, then hires people, like me, to fill the positions. As Americans, we organize ourselves around the words on the piece of paper, and expect others to do the same in their dealings with us. This is, itself, something that needs to be taught to someone coming from a high context culture.
The reality is, if you are collaborating with someone from a high context culture, the words in the job description may have very little significance to your high context collaborator in the large schema of things. They have their context, they are going to put you into it, and assume you’ll carry along with norms that currently exist. Pragmatically speaking, they realize that they need to do the position description (PD) with Peace Corps to get a volunteer, but that may be the extent of their understanding of the purpose of the PD. For PC, on the other hand, the PD is everything: the rationale for recruiting a volunteer, i.e. allocating your tax dollars for the position, the criteria for selecting the right candidate, the basis upon which the performance of the volunteer will be evaluated during, and at the end of, service, etc. A piece of paper is very powerful in a low context culture; it is almost the only thing that has any importance. Not so in a high context culture.
So, a PD gets you a volunteer. Then what? And here is where one may encounter molasses of varying depths and consistency. In some cases, the host is entirely on board with the PD as it is written. In other instances, such as my own, this may not be the case.
In a high context culture, the first priority for a newcomer is to include them into the context. Indeed, we had a lovely welcome meeting with the principal of the school and all the staff where the principal invited the entire staff to be supportive of me and our collaboration so that we can be one family here at the College. He tells us that this is to be my “second America”, meaning, I infer, my second “home”, and then leaves my poor CP to decide what to actually do with me.
Offering me my choice of courses to teach is a very hospitable and generous act and, as with my house, my acceptance of the offer would displace whoever normally has the job. So, of course, this is not possible. PC is here to provide technical support that is missing, not take away jobs from host country nationals. Furthermore, we are here to build capacity, which means that we are supposed to do something that leaves our site with more skills and knowledge than they had before we got here, and, ideally, enough to sustain whatever we create together without needing technical support from outside agencies in the future. Lofty goals, to be sure, but that is the essence of development work.
True to my low context upbringing, when faced with what appears to be an unrealistic proposal, I try to get more information. I don’t want to jump to any erroneous conclusions just because of the molasses effect. Since the college had detailed syllabi for every course, and the man in charge of quality assurance had them all on his computer, I was able to obtain the syllabi for several of the courses whose titles suggested that they might have something related to English proficiency development.
In addition to trying to sort of the substance of what I could do, I was also mentally scrambling to figure out how classes in English proficiency could be added to the curricula, given that the programs of study are already set, students need to get the credits associated with each course in order to get their diploma. Who is going to want to have to take extra courses, no matter how intriguing the prospect of working with an American teacher might be? Of course, here is where I need to remember my roots – I can’t assume that Rwandan students would quibble over extra hours the same way that American students would.
Still…. I know that academic bureaucracy moves slowly even under the best of circumstances, and I am only here for a year. I believe that I will be more likely to succeed in introducing TEFL classes if I can figure out how to do it without messing with the college’s modular approach to teaching, i.e. each course is taught as a 2-3 week intensive module. How to introduce classes without adding hours to the day, and how to add something that would provide consistent input for students over the course of their studies? This is the question I have to answer, assuming I am able to successfully navigate the molasses between what Peace Corps expects of me and what my host institution has in mind for me to do.
By the end of the day, I was able to see with a high degree of certainty that, not only am I no longer in Kansas, there is, professionally speaking, absolutely nothing behind the wizard’s curtain except the piece of paper upon which my job description is written, my determination to figure out how to bring the words to life in a meaningful way without stepping on anyone’s toes, and, still, a lot of molasses.